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Myth of the Middle Class

September 14, 2011

I remember reading somewhere that the idea of “retirement” might be just a short phenomenon in our history. In the past, you worked until you physically couldn’t work anymore (unless you were particularly well off). Even the “middle class” or merchant class probably worked as long as they were physically able. It’s only been something like 3-4 generations that have really considered retirement as a possibility. Even then, only the Greatest Generation and the smaller generations to either side of them have really proven to be successful with this.

Baby Boomers (who are all supposed to be retiring now) seem to be the first generation watching the rug get pulled out from underneath them. My generation was warned pensions were gone and social security might not be there but Boomers often watched pensions disappear in smoke and mirror corporate bankruptcy, watched retirement benefits get cut back the closer they got to retirement, and now have to watch their 401k savings disappear in several market panics.

All of this makes me wonder if there really is a middle class. There was an article in the LA Times on When the Middle Class Goes Homeless (thanks to the Boxcar kids’ blog for the link). And I’ve been hearing stories on my local NPR station about middle class going to food banks and not talked about highest percentage of our population in poverty now since they began tracking the statistic in the 1950s. And I wonder whether if you can lose your job at the whim of a corporate executive and find yourself needing the services of a shelter or a food bank whether you were really middle class to begin with.

Sure, maybe we have nice things. We have laptops and cars and maybe even homes with underwater loans on them. We feel secure and don’t have daily food issues like the 46 million in poverty right now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful to be where I’m at economically. I have a 401k and even emergency savings and tend to get to spend money on toys and treats for myself. But I, like many wage slaves, can lose my income at any time. And then there’s a finite amount of time I have until I began to lose the house, have to choose between gas and bills, and eventually end up losing my middle class status. Even the historic “working poor” are facing the new norm of the economic downturn with problems their parents didn’t have to face. It just makes me wonder whether all these labels we give ourselves, all these ideas that we’re no longer in an autocratic and feudal society, that we’re just fooling ourselves. That as we watch traditional retirement slip away so too will the idea of a solid middle class.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 9:26 am

    Nice post! Well, this is the raging unregulated capitalism for you (a.k.a imperisalism). Weakened protection for workers all around, unions being dismantled… Yes, just like you said — as long as you work, all is well; get fired and watch it all go to hell.

  2. September 15, 2011 10:06 am

    I’m wondering how much of the social security disappearing, pensions going into 401K, retirement benefits being cut back is a story of the strength of unions in America. I haven’t thought this through fully, so I don’t want to make absolute statements, but it seems to me that if we these problems are not the ones that soon to be retirees face in strong union countries in western Europe. (They have a different set of issues to deal with.)

    I’m just trying to disentangle what wealth insecurity is being caused by the overall economic situation, and what is being caused by other trends.

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